There is a common scenario in prog album reviews where bands that have – or have tried to – make their mark on the scene in more recent times have to be compared to their predecessors, and also have their key influences scrutinised to the nth degree. It can often be justified if the context is appropriate, but if you have read reviews of Four Sides already, it having been released in December 2023, I am going to assume that you don’t need to have all of those comparisons pointed out again. All I will say is that whilst band leader Ken Baird’s musical style is recognisably derivative at times, it is also progressive in the true sense of the word, and over the years (this is the band’s fifth album) Monarch Trail have established for themselves what can only be described as the ‘Monarch Trail sound’.
Ken honed his craft as a solo artist in Canada, and having recruited wisely in the formation of the band, with Chris Lamont and Dino Verginalla on drums and bass, is now well on the way to establishing Monarch Trail on the progressive scene. After Wither Down was placed at number three in Shaun Geraghty’s Prog Mill album of the year at Progzilla Radio in 2021, this is a welcome addition to the discography.
Without falling into the trap, Four Sides is modern melodic prog with a heavy emphasis on piano and keyboards. Extended instrumental passages form the centrepieces of vinyl LP length tracks. The production is high quality and the five pieces included here are contrasting but complementary, providing enough drama to sustain interest for the listener over the 74-minutes. So, to summarise, Monarch Trail is doing pretty much what many other prog bands have done before, and what many others are doing now. And there is a reason why, of course: because it’s what we have all been bought up on, it’s what were familiar with and, ultimately, it’s what a lot of us like to listen to.
There is certainly a lot of the Monarch Trail sound presented here, but the whole album works extremely well when listened to in one session because each ‘side’ (presumably, with enough support, it will be issued on vinyl at some point) has a different feel from the start and they each go on to explore different types of sounds and arrangements. Whilst each track feels fresh and inviting, when I dug a little bit deeper, I developed a nagging feeling that Ken has come up with the ‘four sides’ concept and melded the tracks to fit. This is a decent, interesting album, but, as is often the case these days, I can’t help but wonder that if this was the basis for a 45-50-minute-long player it could have been an absolute stunner.
The first track, taking up all of what would be side one of a double LP, is The Oldest of Trees and although this is the track that seems to be getting a lot of attention, I have to say that out of the three long tracks this is my least favourite. The ambition is not to be questioned, but for me, it follows a fairly predictable structure of phases, and although there are memorable instrumental breaks scattered throughout, overall it lacks an element of surprise. After a few listens my sense of anticipation has dissipated and what I’m left with is an admiration for the musicianship but a sense that this is an opportunity missed. We usually hear any track that lasts for 15+ minutes described as an ‘epic’, but I think we need to focus more on what makes the truly epic long tracks so distinctive and memorable. It could be the lyrics telling a riveting story, the instrumental passages that build up towards a stupendous climax, or the progressive development of a few key themes or melodies. It’s an inexact science but until all of these factors work harmoniously together, it is unlikely that the result will be ‘epic’.
We don’t have to look far to find an opportunity to make a comparison. In fact, only as far as track 2, Eris, which has me hooked from the first bar. Instead of launching straight into neo-proggery, the track opens with the sound of wind blowing through the headphones. “So what?”, I hear you say. Well, this is obviously the beginning of a story and I am immediately invested in wanting to follow it. Three minutes in and some ethereal atmospheric tones are gently added into the mix. Six minutes now, and an organ melody briefly breaks up the soundscape before a mix of celestial synths moves the story forward. Just before a melody begins to surface from out of the ambience the peace is shattered by a virtuoso keyboard passage accompanied by a driving drum beat. In this case, the impact of the neo-proggery is heightened by the sense of anticipation created by the unusual, unexpected, and disconcerting opening. In the remaining minutes the key melodies are presented in various forms, the Monarch Trail sound builds up to a satisfying climax and the whole track becomes so much more than the sum of its parts. Epic? It just may be.
The third of the long form songs is Twenty K. This time, the track is a piano-led piece that opens with a gorgeous melodic song that leads into a soaring guitar solo. The piano returns to set up an extended sequence where a circular melody gradually increases in tempo before the guitar is featured again. After a less than successful attempt to resurrect the song elements, with Ken rather over-stretching his vocal range, another signature Monarch Trail instrumental passage brings the track to a close. Unfortunately, it feels to me more like a suite of musical ideas than a coherent single track. The song elements in the opening section are strong enough to stand alone and – I just have to say it at this point – the final section is far too Genesis-sy (there it is, it’s so difficult to resist). It’s a distraction and an example of how more can sometimes end up being less. A fine song, some great instrumental ideas, but could benefit from being more focused and concise.
And again, we don’t have to look far to find an opportunity to make a comparison as next up is Moon to Follow, the most accessible track on the album. It comes in at a more digestible 10-minutes, it has a beginning, a middle, and an end and it contains a totally unexpected jazzy piano break that integrates superbly as a natural progressive development of the infectious central melody. Ken does a great job with the vocals here as well; it really is a classic example of the Monarch Trail sound.
To finish ‘side 4’, the final track Afterthought is a piece that would probably sit better in a Ken Baird solo album, and naming the track as he did, Ken seems to be inviting the reviewer to walk into a trap. Honestly, I think it could have served a purpose to break up the sequence of long form tracks, in the way that short instrumental pieces have been used in the past, but in this case I’m happy to declare that if it was a trap to name it Afterthought, I willingly fall up to my neck into it.
As I said at the beginning, this is a highly enjoyable album from start to finish. Whilst Monarch Trail do have a distinctive sound, Ken Baird is adept at extending his and the band’s musical range and on Four Sides that has provided ample opportunity for the whole band to contribute to the creation of a satisfying and dynamic sequence of tracks.
Personally, there are aspects of the production and arrangements that don’t sit well with me, but it’s just a matter of opinion. It shouldn’t put off any modern melodic prog connoisseur from diving in, and you are free to make up your own minds on Ken’s influences.
01. The Oldest of Trees (22:39)
02. Eris (19:46)
03. Twenty K (17:06)
04. Moon to Follow (9:37)
05. Afterthought (4:21)
Total Time – 73:29
Ken Baird – Piano, Keyboards, Vocals, Recorder, Penny Whistle, Guitar (tracks 1 & 5)
Dino Verginella – Bass
Chris Lamont – Drums
Kelly Kereliuk: Guitar (track 3)
Steve Cochrane – Guitar (track 4)
Record Label: Independent
Country of Origin: Canada
Date of Release: 17th December 2023